Remembrance of things future: Long-term memory sets the stage for visual perception

December 28, 2011 by Stuart Mason Dambrot feature
Experimental protocol for memory-guided attention. (A) In both EEG and fMRI experiments, participants first completed a learning task in which they searched for a target stimulus that was embedded within naturalistic scenes. Targets were presented on the right (Right Memory), left (Left Memory) or not at all (Neutral Memory). (B) Over repeated sessions, participants found, and learned, the location of target stimuli. The learning profile from the EEG experiment is plotted for search accuracy (left y axis, red) and search time (right y axis, blue) as a function of training session number (x axis). (C) On the following day, participants performed an attention task in which scenes from the initial learning task were used to cue the location of a subsequent target. The first scene was always presented without the target stimulus, whereas the second scene contained a target on 50% of trials. On target-present trials, previously learned locations were 100% predictive of the subsequent target location. Consequently, valid memory cue scenes could be used to predict the precise location of the subsequent target, whereas memories for neutral cues contained no task-relevant spatial information. (D) Behavioral data are shown for the EEG experiment, with sensitivity (left y axis, bars) and RT (right y axis, triangles) plotted as a function memory condition (memory vs. neutral). Detection sensitivity was higher for spatially predictive memories, and RTs were shorter. Error bars represent ±1 SEM. Copyright © PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1108555108

(Medical Xpress) -- Rather than being a passive state, perception is an active process fueled by predictions and expectations about our environment. In the latter case, memory must be a fundamental component in the way our brain generates these precursors to the perceptual experience – but how the brain integrates long-term memory with perception has not been determined. Recently, however, researchers in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, by devising a method for integrating memory and attention, showed how LTM optimizes perception by varying brain states associated with anticipation of spatial localization in the visual field. The scientists also used fMRI to articulate a neural network involving a number of cortical areas likely to be active in the predictive use of memory in the visual cortex.

Lead researcher Mark G. Stokes, working with Kathryn Atherton, Eva Zita Patai, and Anna Christina Nobre, explains that to study how memory guides attention, it was first necessary to train each participant of the experiment to remember a large number of associations that can then be used to guide attention. “In this study,” Stokes tells Medical Xpress, “we exploited the ’s inherent ability to remember specific spatial locations within natural scenes. Despite the enormous visual complexity in such scenes, the brain is extremely adept at processing this kind of information, and can store essential details in long-term memory with little apparent effort. This ability is an ideal route for us to experimentally manipulate the contents of long-term memory to test the effects of attention on visual performance, and explore the underlying brain basis with EEG and fMRI.”

Memory predictions trigger contralateral alpha-desynchronization in posterior electrodes. (A) EEG recordings demonstrate that memory cues trigger spatially specific desynchronization of alpha-band oscillations in posterior electrodes, including PO7/PO8. The scalp topography of cue-specific differences (left − right cue; 650-750 ms) in alpha power is shown projected across a 3D scalp surface. (B) Time-course analysis of alpha power in lateralized posterior electrodes, PO7 (in red) and PO8 (in blue), illustrates how contralateral desynchronization emerges at approximately 400 ms after the cue onset. Positive values reflect contralateral desynchronization in the left hemisphere, whereas negative values reflect desynchronization in the right hemisphere, and shading represents ±1 SEM. Copyright © PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1108555108

To accomplish this, says Stokes, the key methodological development in their research was to specifically measure how long-term memories modulate preparatory brain activity. “For the fMRI experiment, this involved a technique called event-related fMRI, which allows us to separate statistically the brain response to distinct cognitive events. Incorporating high-temporal resolution EEG was also a key innovation in this research, providing a more direct real-time measure of memory related changes in preparatory brain activity.”

The next step in the team’s research was to determine how an integrated circuit of attention and memory related brain areas – the frontoparietal cortex, and hippocampus, respectively – are coordinated for memory-guided attention. “So far we’ve demonstrated which brain areas are active,” Stokes notes, “but more detailed imaging data could also tell us how these areas communicate. Moreover, disruption methods like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation can pinpoint which nodes of the frontoparietal network are necessary for guided .”

Memory predictions increase BOLD-related activity in contralateral visual areas. (A) Behavioral analysis of fMRI experiment confirmed that detection sensitivity was enhanced for targets presented at memory-predicted locations, relative to memory-neutral locations. Detection sensitivity (left y axis, bars) and RT (right y axis, triangles) are plotted as a function memory condition (memory valid vs. neutral). (B) Analysis of the BOLD response revealed evidence of spatially specific biases in preparatory visual activity: memory cues elicited increased activity in contralateral subregions of visual cortex, particularly in extrastriate visual areas. Data contrasting left vs. right views are shown on the occipital surface, extracted and flattened using Freesurfer (Materials and Methods) (C) Spatially specific cue-related activity is shown for specific visual areas (text provides details). Error bars represent ±1 SEM. Copyright © PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1108555108

Commenting on how their findings might impact other areas, Stokes points out that integrating high-spatial resolution fMRI and high-temporal resolution EEG would be a powerful approach for a range of cognitive neuroscience applications. It also might be possible, Stokes agrees, to transition to a completely in silico model based on optogenetics-derived data.

Explore further: Sea snails help researchers explore a way to enhance memory

More information: Long-term memory prepares neural activity for perception, PNAS, Published online before print November 22, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1108555108


Related Stories

Sea snails help researchers explore a way to enhance memory

December 26, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Efforts to help people with learning impairments are being aided by a species of sea snail known as Aplysia californica. The mollusk, which is used by researchers to study the brain, has much in common ...

Regulation of attention and concentration in brain unravelled

August 11, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- The prefrontal cortex of the brain is involved in memory processes and the ability to concentrate attentively. Neuroscientists from VU University Amsterdam have shown how and where this occurs in the prefrontal ...

Ready to learn? Brain scans can tell you

August 19, 2011

Our memories work better when our brains are prepared to absorb new information, according to a new study by MIT researchers. A team led by Professor John Gabrieli has shown that activity in a specific part of the brain, ...

Recommended for you

Researchers identify brain network organization changes

May 25, 2017

As children age into adolescence and on into young adulthood, they show dramatic improvements in their ability to control impulses, stay organized, and make decisions. Those executive functions of the brain are key factors ...

Fathers' brains respond differently to daughters than sons

May 25, 2017

Fathers with toddler daughters are more attentive and responsive to those daughters' needs than fathers with toddler sons are to the needs of those sons, according to brain scans and recordings of the parents' daily interactions ...

Scientists demonstrate the existence of 'social neurons'

May 25, 2017

The existence of new "social" neurons has just been demonstrated by scientists from the Institut de neurosciences des systèmes (Aix-Marseille University / INSERM), the Laboratoire de psychologie sociale et cognitive (Université ...

How fear can develop out of others' traumas

May 25, 2017

What happens in the brain when we see other people experiencing a trauma or being subjected to pain? Well, the same regions that are involved when we feel pain ourselves are also activated when we observe other people who ...

Babies' slow brain waves could predict problems

May 25, 2017

The brain waves of healthy newborns – which appear more abnormal than those of severe stroke victims – could be used to accurately predict which babies will have neurodevelopmental disorders.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Dec 29, 2011
My understanding of LTM includes its "calibration" in placental mammals via the in utero exchange of chemical signals between mother and infant(s). Infants are thereby classically conditioned to respond to visual associations with olfactory/pheromonal stimuli at parturition as control of hippocampal neurogenesis is influenced primarily by the olfactory/pheromonal stimuli (i.e., not by visual or auditory input). It is odd that so many researchers seem to posit the primacy of visual and/or auditory input to the development of human behavior when the biological basis for behavioral development seems to be similarly directed by olfactory/pheromonal input from microbes to man - even in the absence of any tissues, organs, or organ systems. It's as if genetic predispositions and sensory input from the environment is responsible for behavioral development across species that rely first and foremost on chemical cues.
not rated yet Dec 29, 2011
" can store essential details in long-term memory with little apparent effort. "

I sometimes wonder what the purpose of eidetic memory is in regards to this ?

I feel like having unusual memory skills makes the world very ...predictable.

not rated yet Dec 30, 2011
@JVK, interesting observation but I believe what you refer to is a function of neurogenesis only, LTM functions independently of such priming contexts and is proven to be controlled by genetic signalling networks which modify the sensitivity of the neuron to input signals. That said, I completely agree with you in that our neurological system is highly susceptible to environmental influences far more subtle than the obvious auditory/visual stimulation.
not rated yet Dec 30, 2011
Thanks gmurphy. I would argue (but not with you) that the signalling pathways and networks involved are calibrated by the subtle effects of sensory input on one central neuronal system that allows chemical stimuli from the environment to concurrently and collectively effect genetic predispositions, hippocampal neurogenesis and LTM functions associated with other sensory input (e.g., auditory and visual input of lesser importance). If I can get an organism to move and remember why it moved via mechanisms of self / non-self recognition present in microbes, I can probably take the same approach/(model for the development of behavior) and arrive at LTM functions in more highly evolved species like invertebrates with their mushroom bodies or mammals with their hippocampi. I may need some help from experts to do this, nonetheless.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.